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BALI: THE ISLAND OF THE GODS

 

 
Bali, a lusciously green and fertile island, covers a surface of just over 5600 square kilometer - almost the size of the italian region of Liguria. It is situated 8 degrees south of the Equator, north of the Tropic of Capricorn. It is mountainous - its central range traverses the length of the entire island, with high peak mountains. The "mother" mountain, the seat of the gods, Gunung Agung, is over 3,000 meter high. At the foot of the mountains and all the way to the sea, the rice terraces present a most striking and unforgettable scenery.
 

 
Already settled in prehistoric times and as the seat of the Majapahit kings, the island is rich in culture and arts (dance, theater, music, carving, painting) and has several beautiful monuments (temples in particular) to be visited, as well and many interesting forms of artistic crafts.
 
Bali is characterized by a wealth of enchanting landscapes, traditions and folklore for the eyes of the tourists to feast on them every day.
 

 

 
One of the most interesting features of this "island of the gods" is, I believe, its people.
 
Feasts, ceremonies costumes are in fact linked to their religion which conditions every moment of the day.
 
Here there is a dualistic notion of the world. Everything is counterbalanced: sky/earth, sun/moon, day/night, gods/demons. Evil must be fought but it is known that it cannot be destroyed, Offers must be made both to the demons and the gods. The former so they do not harm and the latter so they protect.
 

 
The typical tower-like offers - gebogan - that the women carry on their heads are placed in the pavilion during the odalan, the annual feast of the temple, to be picked by the gods.
 

 
Gods are present everywhere in Bali. They have been there since the beginning, in the springs, in the mountains, in the trees. The gods dominate the island from the highest volcanoes and descend among the people on particular occasions, in the temples. There are over 11,000 temples and the landscape is dotted with these buildings - sometimes big and majestic and other times simple and modest such as in the fields where they are dedicated to the goddess of the rice or of the sea, the goddess of death, the founder of the village or to an a divine ancestor.
 
You almost centrainly will see a procession going to either one of another of the many temples because there are over 200 feats every year. The women, in their classic costume, - sarong kebaya - carry on flowers, fruit, food on their heads to be blessed; the men play the "gamelan", a complex set of percussion instruments. On every street corner, in front of a house or business you will see on the ground small bamboo leaf trays with flowers, rice and fruit. These are the offers for the demons.
 

 

 
Over the centuries, ancient Balinese rituals have overlapped with Hinduism and Buddhism.
 
The Balinese believe in the cult of the ancestors and the founder of a village is revered as the god of that community. There are no laws or duties that are not prescribed by the gods and no joy that has no divine origin.
 
A very beautiful and moving ceremony if the cremation of the dead, ngaben. If you are lucky enough to see one of these "feasts" - a moment of great joy for the Balinese as the soul of the dead relative is finally released - organized for a rich or noble person you can be sure to have witnessed one of the most beautiful ceremonies in the world.
 

 
The tower platform carried on the shoulders of several men transports the body of a king to the place of the cremation. The tower has several roofs, varying in number depending on the caste, and is a symbol of the many heavens the soul has to reach.
 

Photograph from 1902
 
The temple is the most important institution on the island. Every village must have at least three temples: "pura desa" where the feasts are held; "pura puseh" open to all gods "pura dalem" dedicated to the goddess of death ‘Durga’, and to the departed souls.
 
The temple consists of two or three enclosures with shrines and pavilions, covered platforms and the characteristic "meru", pagoda-like structures with 1 to 11 roofs, depending on the importance of the god to whom it is dedicated.
 
In the inside of every family compound there are several small temples, sanggah or merajang, dedicated to the gods and the ancestors. There are no images or idols because the gods are invisible and elusive.
 
Although there are many gods from whom protection is sought, in reality they are all different representations of trimurti, the Indian trinity in which Brahama is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, while Shiva returns all material forms to their original state.
 
Trimurti identifies itself in one supreme god: Ida Sanghyang Widhi Wasa - the only one represented by an image - respecting therefore the tenet of the Indonesian Constitution that allows freedom of religion but demands that it identifies with only one god.
 

Image of the supreme god in the padmasana, the stone throne.
The anticlockwise swastika represents the wheel of life which turns clockwise.
 
 
BALI IN FIGURES
  • 8 degrees south of the equator
  • 5,532 km2 of extension (Liguria 5,416)
  • 2,900,000 inhabitants - 525 per km2. (350 Liguria)
  • 2 volcanoes: Gunung Agung m.3,140; Gunung Batur m. 1,700
  • 95 percent of the population is Hindu.

Climate
  • tropical: warm all year round with minimum variations; minimum temperature 25/27, maximum 30/31 degrees
  • in August (where here is "winter’) 24/29 degrees
  • Rains: December to February (warm rain!) ; the rain does not last all day. June to September no rain, just a few storms.
Visiting Bali
  • Practically Bali can be visited all year round both for its balmy temperature and not too hard rain. Furthermore in the months from November to February (Balinese "summer") several interesting ceremonies, are held although ceremonies can be seen in any period.
Flora
  • Everywhere magnificent terraced rice fields. Then waringing (banyan tree), frangipane, coconut and sugar palms, coffee, cocoa and spices.

 
Economy
  • Agriculture 40%, tourism 30%, 20% services; 70% craft and manufacture export.

A craftman working on the completion of a mask. It is a mask for tourists as those for the ceremonies are sacred and demand periodical propitiatory rites.
 

 
Tourist areas
  • South of the island: Ubud, Nusa Dua, Sanur, Kuta / Legian / Seminyak / Basangkasa
  • North-west: Menjangan, Lovinia
  • North-east: Candi Dasa, Amed, Tulamben
Calendars
The western calendar is used by the community but for the Balinese religion there are three different calendars:
  • ‘Pewkan’: 10 weeks from 1 to 10 days
  • ‘Wuku’: 30 weeks of 7 days
  • ‘Saka’: lunar, the month commences with the new moon (tourist feasts on the beach).
Caste
Caste is a Portuguese word and means "division of duties". The caste system, prohibited by the government, still persists in interaction among Balinese.
  • Brahamana caste: it is the caste of the high priests and their families. Noble title: Ida Bagus
  • Satria o ksatria caste: princes, warriors, rajas. Noble title: Anak Agung or Dewa or Cokorda
  • Wesia caste: public administrators, professionals. Noble title: Gusti
  • Sudria caste: 90% of the population belongs to this caste.
  • Unlike in India, there are no "untouchable"
In the symbolic representation, the brahamans are the mouth, the satria the arms, the wesia the legs and the sudria the feet.
 

Pedanda - High priest of the Brahman caste - praying in a temple. On their heads the religious symbols of their rank.
 

 
HISTORY
 
First traces of dwellings go back to 300 BC.
 
Incisions on stone and crafts of VII AD.
 
At the beginning of the XI century king Airlangga from Java, the son of a Balinese princess, extends his domain over the island. After his death Bali enjoys two centuries of independence.
 
From 1300 the Javanese Majapahit dinasty, on the death of its most important raja, Dalem Badulu (1343), brings Bali back under Javanese influence.
 
When Islam starts to take over Java, the Hindu princes move to Bali (1478) and give rise, over years, to eight kingdoms.
 
The first Europeans arrive in 1597: Dutch. The raja - Dewa Agung - goes to meet them seated on a carriage pulled by white oxen, covered in jewels and accompanied by 200 wives and 300 dignitaries. This was the golden age of the Gelgel kingdom.
 

Dutch drawing of 1600.

 
Early in 1700 the Dutch intensify the commerce, build landing points and tend to occupy the island, causing conflict among the various rajas.
 
In 1841, using as a pretext a wrecked vessel looted by locals, the Dutch occupy the north of the island but are forced to withdraw given the unexpected strong resistance of the Balinese. For the Balinese the vessel was a gift from the sea goddess, Batara Baruna, to the people.
 
1846 the Dutch arrive with 58 vessels and 3000 men. Raja Jelantik pushes them back from the hills.
 
1848: In spite of their 75 cannons the Dutch are again pushed back.
 
1849: third campaign comprising 100 cannons, 50 frigates, 30 ships, 8000 soldiers and sailors; the cannons firing from the ships onto the coast are an irresistible force. The raja of Karangasem not to fall in the hands of the Dutch puts in action the ancient rite of puputan (meaning" the end" - mass ritual suicide): he kills himself. The raja of Buleleng and resistance hero Gusti Ketut Jelantik also commits puputan together with 400 retainers.
 

Warriors in battle suits - 1880
 
Time went by and in the second half of the XIX century, commerce intensified and the Dutch sought treaties with the local rajas.
 

The raja of Karangasem with his nephew, early 1900
 
1906: The Dutch bomb Denpasar, the capital of the Badung district with the pretext of a plundered chinese wreck under Dutch protection. The raja too opts for the rite of puputan, together with all his family and retainers after burning down the palace.
 

Map of the Denpasar royal palace, seat of the raja of Badung.
 

An imaginative drawing for a French newspaper of the time.
It bears witness to the impact the Balinese tragedy had in Europe.
 
The prince of Tabanan, imprisoned, kills himself and the wives commit suttee by throwing themselves alive into the cremation fire.
 

Drawing depicting the first wife of the raja throwing herself into the fire to die with her husband during his cremation. The other wives will follow. The rite is called "suttee".
 
The prince of Gelgel, defeated, sacrifices himself: another puputan.
 
1908: coming out of the puri (palace) Dewa Agung, raja of Klungkung, walks towards the Dutch rifles with all his family and retainers. It is a massacre and the destruction of the puri.
 

Palace of Klungkung. Destroyed by Dutch cannons. Only a pavilion remains.
 
In 1908, with the total occupation of the island, the descendants of the rajas only maintain a representative role, devoid of any effective power. They are, however, still considered dewa, gods on earth, spiritual leaders. The only remaining kingdoms are those of Karangasem and Gianyar, who have entered into a diplomatic treaty and have become Dutch protectorates.
 

The raja of Gianyar with his wife in a photograph of 1910.
 

 
Gusti Bagus Jelantik, raja of Karangasem with wife and daughter in 1923
 
Tourism in Bali starts around the 1920s. In 1930 over 100 tourist a month visit the island.
 

 
The former rajas, reduced to the role of local representatives and spiritual leaders in Bali, during a meeting in the residence of the Dutch governor for Bali and Lombok in Singaraja, circa 1930. From left to right: 1.Cokorda Alit Ngurah, Badung. 2. Anak Agung Ngurah, Bangli. 3. Anak Agung Putu Jelantik, Buleleng. 4. Anak Agung Anglurah Ketut Karangasem, Karangasem. 5. Anak Agung Ngurah Agung, Gianyar. 6. Anak Agung Bagus Negara, Jemberana. 7. Dewa Agung Oka Geg, Klungkung. 8. I Gusti Ngurah Wayan, Tabanan.
 

 

 
1942 - World War III - the Japanese invade the island and treat the local population cruelly.
 
15 August 1945 the Japanese surrender to the Allies.
 
17 August 1945 Indonesia proclaims its independence.
 
Dutch attempt to repossess the island. Groups of partisans are formed to strongly resist against the new occupation.
 
Leader of the resistance is Ngurah Rai and to the cry of "merdeka atau mati" - freedom or death - hunted into the mountains and finally defeated, the patriot commits the last puputan in the history of the island, in Marga, fighting with only 95 men in a suicide attack, just not to surrender. It is in his honor that the Bali airport is called Ngurah Rai.
 
1949 - the Dutch recognize Indonesia independence.
 

Muspa: it is a prayer with a precise sequence: joined hands are lifted towards the sky first empty, then with flower petals and then with a flower composition. All prayers are followed by a blessing with holy water and the distribution of blessed grains of rice that the faithful apply to their forehead.